If there’s such a thing as poker-faced exuberance, you can feel it in every loving, teasing frame of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!,” an inside-showbiz lark that regards the 1950s studio system with the utmost skepticism even as it becomes an expression of movie love at its purest. Starring Josh Brolin as a hard-working industry “fixer” tasked with keeping big-budget productions on track and wayward stars in line, this gorgeously crafted romp through the backlots and Malibu enclaves of Hollywood’s Golden Age tosses off plenty of eccentric comedy and musical razzle-dazzle before taking on richer, more ruminative dimensions, ultimately landing on the funny-sad question of whether life is but a dream factory. Although it boasts enough marquee names and splashy, crowdpleasing angles to deliver good returns for Universal, this is as strange and singular an offering as anything the Coens have ever done, and as such its more thoughtful, elusive undertones could stand in the way of broader public acceptance. It bows Feb. 5 Stateside, a week before premiering overseas as the Berlin Film Festival’s opening-night attraction.
The high-powered Hollywood fixer has been enjoying an on-screen mini-renaissance, on the evidence of Showtime’s Liev Schreiber-starring “Ray Donovan” and now the Coen brothers’ lavish throwback to an earlier era of industry damage control, as overseen here by the character of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fictionalized composite of the real-life studio VP Mannix and his head of publicity, Howard Strickling. The various scandals that Mannix and Strickling covered up during their decades working together at MGM could easily furnish several films of their own, but the Coens generally steer clear of salaciousness in favor of a jaundiced but affectionate character study, treating Brolin’s eternally put-upon Eddie as a beacon of relative sanity and intelligence in a world overrun by irrationality, venality and corruption.
Indeed, had the Coens not already made a film called “A Serious Man,” neither the title nor the theological baggage would have been misapplied to this version of Eddie, a hard-working Catholic family man first seen unburdening his soul to a priest, and not just because he’s sneaked a few cigarettes behind his wife’s back. It’s the ’50s, and as the designated fixer for Capitol Pictures (played here in a sly amalgam of the Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony lots, plus the courtyard of Los Angeles’ Union Station), Eddie is tasked with preserving the illusion of Hollywood glamour and propriety at a time of pervasive moral crackdown and sociopolitical upheaval, taking not-always-savory steps to ensure that production runs smoothly and top talents stay out of the headlines.
That can mean anything from smacking around an up-and-coming actress caught in an illicit photo shoot, to arranging for prized star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson, terrifically brassy if a bit underused) to secretly adopt her own out-of-wedlock child (a twist inspired directly by the real-life Mannix’s similar arrangement for Loretta Young). It also means enforcing the studio’s questionable decision to cast the handsome, dumb-as-a-stump cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, superb), an audience hit in a recent string of Westerns, in an elegant parlor drama called “Merrily We Dance” — to the quiet chagrin of the prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), whose patient attempts to steer the hopeless Hobie through a single line of dialogue provide the film with one of its most delicious scenes.
But Eddie’s stress load kicks up a notch with the sudden disappearance of Capitol’s top star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is abducted from the set of an expensive Roman epic called “Hail, Caesar!” — clearly modeled on “Ben-Hur,” right down to the “A Tale of the Christ” subtitle — which the studio was hoping to be its big year-end cash cow. And so it falls to the fixer to track down Baird and bring him back, all while cleverly avoiding the threats and insinuations of rival Hollywood gossip columnists and identical twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton in a succession of Hedda Hopper hats (the splendid work of costume designer Mary Zophres).
If nothing else, then, the Coen brothers have employed their gifts for satire and pastiche to concoct a vastly wittier, more knowing and entertaining evocation of HUAC-era Hollywood than the recent “Trumbo” — a connection driven home when Baird awakens in Malibu to find he’s been kidnapped by a cabal of disgruntled screenwriters, who have joined the Communist Party to protest “the pure instrument of capitalism” that studios like Capitol (aha!) have become. Unsurprisingly, the Coens treat this self-righteous statement of principle as an opportunity for ridicule. Basically presented as a series of belligerent reaction shots, these socialist scribes (played by actors including Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz and Fred Melamed) may well pride themselves on sticking up “for the little guy,” but the film has no interest in exalting their politics, much less their benighted profession.
Instead it casts a casually withering stare at every corner and stratum of the industry, from the ego-driven auteurs and bed-hopping stars all the way down to the lowly extras who fill their frames and occasionally throw a major wrench into the gears. It’s no surprise, then, that Eddie is eyeing the exit — or he would be, if he had more than a minute to spare for the Lockheed headhunter (Ian Blackman) who’s trying to lure him away from the frivolity of Tinseltown and help prepare America for its looming nuclear catastrophe. But try as he might, Eddie would rather make movies, not war, and it’s this impulse that accounts for why “Hail, Caesar!,” despite its wickedly serrated edge, never tilts into cynicism or intolerable cruelty.
Their craft seemingly honed to an even sharper point of perfectionism and clarity than usual, the Coens delight in laying bare the nuts and bolts of the process, whether they’re steering us through the gloriously artificial sets used on Baird’s Roman epic (built and shot entirely in L.A., as was the custom of the times), or granting us a peek at the film reels running through the old-school Moviola operated by editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand, getting in a terrific gag in a one-scene role). But the most sublime moments in “Hail, Caesar!” occur when the behind-the-scenes machinery drops away, the films being produced become the film we’re watching, and we’re invited to lose ourselves in a state of vintage Hollywood rapture.
An early highlight finds Johansson’s DeeAnna donning a shiny green mermaid tail in preparation for a stunningly choreographed synchronized-swimming routine straight out of the 1952 Esther Williams tuner “Million Dollar Mermaid.” Even more dazzling is a musical number (“No Dames”) that pays homage to “On the Town” by way of “South Pacific,” with a sailor-suited Channing Tatum tapping and shuffling about like Gene Kelly reborn, all of it filmed by d.p. Roger Deakins in lengthy takes that allow us to see the dancers’ bodies in full view. The Coens harbor no illusions that the glossy tuners and sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear were high art, but they’ve nonetheless fashioned a sophisticated yet utterly sincere tribute to what Andre Bazin called “the genius of the system,” and it touches an almost hypnotic chord of pleasure.
Next to these gemlike moments — which the Coens, judicious editors of their work as always, refuse to linger on — the poky, eccentric shaggy-dog story being told here all but fades into insignificance. Compared with the numerous kidnapping plots they’ve spun in the past, from “Raising Arizona” to “The Big Lebowski,” the mystery of Baird’s disappearance is resolved with little tension or surprise; it exists, as in so many of their seriocomic fables, as a jumping-off point, a philosophical point of entry. Brolin, marching through the picture wearing a frown and a fedora, becomes one of the Coens’ most endearing and pensive leading men — a man searching for meaning in an industry that can supply only a reasonable facsimile of it at best. The movie’s other great performance comes from the 26-year-old Ehrenreich, who at last fulfills the promise of his work in “Tetro” and the underrated “Beautiful Creatures”: Astonishingly good at playing a bad actor, he turns a hapless matinee-idol stooge into a figure of dogged dependability and surprising selflessness.
Are Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle meant to be the faux-Hollywood version of the Father and the Son, the saving graces of the industry? Only the Coens know. In one amusing early scene, Eddie consults an Eastern Orthodox clergyman, a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor and a Jewish rabbi to discuss the religious content of Baird’s Roman epic; the ensuing discussion pokes deft fun at the petty sectarianism of organized religion, and the ease with which it can be pounded and churned into big-screen kitsch. But there’s no denying the power of said kitsch in the studio’s climactic re-creation of Calvary, complete with stirring music and soaring speeches, turning “Hail, Caesar!” into a rousing new testament to that old-time religion known as the movies.